Final Fantasy XIV has a history of improvement. Since its initial launch, it's already gone through a major revision titled A Realm Reborn, but now we're ready for its first expansion, Heavensward. Welcome to Ishgard, frozen battleground between knights and dragons. Since the cliff-hanger ending in patch v2.55, players have been anxiously awaiting to find out what's next for our heroes, but it's important to note that in order to play Heavensward, you'll need to have completed all of the main story quests from A Realm Reborn.
Given that the base game's story is incredibly complex, detailed, and, well, long, it's clear that Square Enix wanted to focus heavily on continuing the fantastic plot points in Heavensward. Unfortunately, many of the cutscenes are still fairly stiff with questionable voice acting, and even with such deep and meaningful characters, watching your Warrior of Light nod every few seconds while the non-playable character performs scripted emotes can get tiring. That said, if you're looking for a massively multiplayer online role-playing game with a great story, you'll be hard pressed to find another as deep and meaningful as this.
Ishgard offers players three new jobs, a new playable race, and expanded skill sets for existing jobs, as well as a whole heap of new dungeons, maps, and enemies. The amount of entertaining content continues to be impressive even after all this time, and Square Enix has done a fantastic job at keeping old content still relevant for new players while keeping the new stuff feeling fresh. It's amazing that even with over 30 dungeons, instances like The Vault still seem new and exciting.
It's much the same for the new jobs. The first of the three new jobs is the Astrologian, a card wielding healing job with a strong support skill set. The Astrologian relies on a deck of cards to dish out healing and deal offensive or defensive buffs. While they suffer from a lack of any reputable damage dealing skills, boosting the party's abilities helps make up for the loss of damage that a comparable scholar or white mage can apply in most instances. In eight player content, the Astrologian can switch between one of two stances to create synergy with a white mage or a scholar. Even though it possesses a bit of a higher learning curve, the Astrologian is a fantastic addition to the healing role with valuable support abilities.
Next we have one of the most anticipated new jobs since the announcement of Heavensward: the Dark Knight. This greatsword-wielding tank offers more involved abilities for a tank class. The Dark Knight will have to balance both HP and MP in order to stay alive while keeping the enemies off the vulnerable healers and damage dealers. By unleashing their inner darkness, these tanks will be able to increase damage mitigation while dealing more punishment at the cost of a continuous MP drain. Other skills like The Living Dead offer survivability by enabling the tank to remain at 1 HP even through most fatal damage, but if the Dark Knight isn't healed for the value of their full HP, they'll die when the buff wears off. Abilities such as this require extreme co-ordination between the healer and tank with massive payoffs when done right.
The last of the three new jobs is the Machinist. By using guns and a turret, the Machinist deals rapid damage while maintaining a high level of mobility. Turrets can even be promoted to support-style machines increasing either MP or TP regeneration for the party, similar to a Bard's song. While the Machinist is one of the more complex damage dealing classes to play, it's also slightly reliant on luck. Even the basic attack combo requires either an ammunition buff with a moderate cooldown or, as mentioned, a bit of luck since each skill only has a 50 per cent chance to trigger the next skill in the combo chain. This generally equates to a class with amazing burst damage, but slightly lacking compared to others when it comes to long, sustained fights.
Don't feel left out if you're in love with any of the already available jobs, though. Expanding the existing level cap to 60 brings new changes and challenges to each and every class in the game. From Carpentry to Black Mage, each class can level up to expand their arsenal with a set of skills. Some of these are as minor as a damage buff to Warriors, while others like the Bard's Wanderer's Minuet, for better or worse, completely change the way that some jobs are played.
While most of these expanded skill sets greatly improve each job's utility or play style, others have sparked much controversy within the Final Fantasy XIV community. A great example being the above mentioned Bard skill. Since the lonely 1.0 days, Bards have always primarily been an instant damage dealing class with high mobility. By adding the Wanderer's Minuet skill, the Bard is forced to stand still and cast some of their primary skills with the benefit of a 30 per cent damage boost. This skill is optional, but in instances with high damage requirements, the damage potential is too low without it. Even though Square Enix already boosted the damage and reduced the cast time of this buff, it's still a drastic change that's led to many playfully dubbing Bards 'Bow Mages'.
With that said, it's been a short time since the release of this fresh content, and players are still trying to get a feel for how the new skills slot into existing playstyles – or don't, in this particular example. It's important, however, to mention Square Enix's proven support for its MMO. In the short time since the Heavensward release, there have already been significant changes to the both the Bard and Machinist's damage output and playstyle – it's even added four new eight-player raids.
When it comes to the raids themselves, Heavensward takes a more accessible approach in terms of difficulty. In previous patch content, the difficulty spike between four and eight-player content was often jarring, and massively frustrating for players who don't have a large group of dedicated friends. Attempting to clear most of the eight man primals or raids via the Duty Finder is almost futile. Luckily, Alexander – the newest raid instance – and dungeons will prove to be far more accessible for most players; with less punishing mechanics and lower co-operation requirements, these raids are entirely doable for the majority of the players who are able to reach level 60.
That's not to say that Square Enix is going easy on players, though. The difficulty of quests has risen dramatically, with new job quests often requiring a bit of problem solving, while wild monsters on the new maps can make even the mightiest of tanks feel the heat. These very important quests become teaching tools so that players can learn the appropriate roles for group content. Meanwhile, the two new primal fights also feature extreme modes for players looking for loot, and they offer similar difficulty to their pre-expansion primal brethren.
Another new addition is the ability to fly on most of the new maps. Being that these areas are enormous, the ability to fly on select mounts will help adventures quickly traverse the beautiful land of Ishgard. Unfortunately, you won't unlock the ability to fly without first interacting with 'Aether Currents', which are scattered around the map. You'll also need to complete a handful of quests.
As hinted, even though these maps are gorgeous and well laid out, the sheer size of each zone can quickly become exhausting on foot. Often times, it may only appear like a short walk to a quest, but because of the mountains and vertical obstacles, players may need to circle around large portions of the whole map just to reach a ledge visible from a few yalms away. It's very clear that these maps were designed to be navigated via flight, but since many players won't unlock the ability to fly until they're nearly done with that zone, it feels like a missed opportunity.
Performance, meanwhile, remains fairly unchanged. While the PC version offers new and improved visual effects with the addition of the DirectX11 client, performance of the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3 clients remains unchanged. The PS4 client continues to look and run great, while the last-gen edition still struggles in many aspects.
The beautiful new areas, incredible story, and massive additions to existing content make Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward an amazing package. Despite some minor annoyances, the overall amount of additional, enjoyable content proves to be highly entertaining for those who have exhausted Final Fantasy XIV Online: A Realm Reborn. Whether you're a newbie or a returning adventurer, there's no better time than now to give the brilliant world of Eorzea a shot.